Who would think that an insect less than an inch big could be of so much importance to the human society? Throughout the history of mankind, the Western Honey Bee has proven to be of many uses to the human society. The study of the honey bee has shown the true intricacy and efficiency of their colony. Each member of the colony works together in a nearly flawless environment of productivity. For these reasons, and many more, the Western honey bee has proven itself to be one of the most fascinating and useful insects there has ever been.
In order to be able to understand the honey bee and its colony, one must first learn about the bee’s physical make-up. Similar to a typical insect, the Western honey bee can be divided into three major sections; these sections are the head, thorax, and abdomen. The first section, the head, is a very intricate part of the body. The head contains the eyes, antennae, and the mouthparts.
The eyes are an intriguing feature, seeing as the honey bee has two different types of eyes. The first type is the two compound eyes. The compound eyes are more of the typical kind of eyes.
These eyes can sense light and color, though the bee’s spectrum of color varies slightly from the human eye’s spectrum. The honey bee also has three simple eyes, which are called ocelli. The only known function that these eyes serve is to sense the intensity of the light (Dade 65). The two antennae also play a crucial role in the life of the bee. The antennae are the nose of the honey bee, allowing it to sense odors. Along with sensing odors, the antennae aid in their ability to taste. The mouthparts of the honey bee contain the mandibles and proboscis.
The mandibles are jaws that help in chewing, grooming, and several other functions. The proboscis is similar to the human tongue in the fact that its function is to lick and suck up nectar into the honey bee’s mouth. The next section of the bee, the thorax, contains the legs and wings. These both contribute to the mobility of the bee. There are six legs on a honey bee which come in three pairs. The legs perform multiple functions, among these being that they aid in mobility, grooming, and storing pollen. The honey bee possesses two pairs of wings, the front wings and the hind wings.
These wings provide for very efficient flight, allowing the bee to beat its wings at an astounding rate of 200 times per second; they have also been known to travel up to 60 kilometers on one meal (Winston 26-29). The third and final section of the bee is the abdomen. The most well-known and feared function of the bee, the stinger, is found in the abdomen. Large portions of the bee’s digestive, excretory, circulatory, and respiratory systems are also found in the abdomen. The internal systems of the honey bee are as fascinating as its physical qualities.
Much like a human, the honey bee also has a digestive system. When a bee consumes food, it travels through its esophagus to its crop. While in the crop the food can be regurgitated and transferred to another bee. After passing through the crop, the food travels to the midgut. This is where the digestion and absorption of nutrients takes place in the bee. Then the digested food is either excreted through the rectum or used for energy. The circulatory and respiratory systems of the honey bee are fairly simple with the dorsal heart and aorta being the main contributors in blood circulation.
Unlike a human, the bee does not have veins and arteries for the blood to travel through. Instead, the blood fills the body cavity and enters the heart through the ostia. After passing through the ostia and heart, the blood travels to the head. The honey bee respiratory system also varies a great deal from the human’s. The honey bee breathes through holes called spiracles. These spiracles are connected to the tracheae which are tubes that transport the oxygen in and the carbon dioxide out of the bee. The honey bee’s ability to fly is a very important and interesting ability.
As mentioned previously, the honey bee has 4 wings, a pair of frontal wings and a pair of hind wings which are located on the thorax. There are two muscle systems that move the wings, the direct and indirect muscles. The direct muscles are attached directly to the bases of the wings, whereas the indirect muscles are located in the thorax but are not attached to the wing bases. The indirect flight muscles are much larger than the direct flight muscles and likewise play a greater role in the honey bee’s flight. The indirect muscles control the up-and-down wing strokes as well as the back and forth strokes.
There are two sections of the indirect muscles, the vertical muscles and the longitudinal muscles. There is a pair of each of these two types of indirect muscles. The vertical and longitudinal muscles expand alternately; this causes the wing to flap, providing the motion for flight. This happens at an extremely quick pace, which allows the wings to beat at 200 beats per second. Not only can it do this quickly, but it can do it efficiently. The bee can travel for very long periods on just one meal. Honey bees live on just three items; these are nectar, pollen, and water.
Nectar provides carbohydrates for the bees, while the pollen provides proteins. Most of the nectar and pollen that the bees collect though is used in the production of honey. In a summer, a typical honey bee colony of around 30,000 bees consumes about 20kg of pollen (Seeley 82). If you multiply out the distance required for an average travel times the 1. 3 million foraging trips that it would require to harvest 20kg of pollen, then it would be equivalent to traveling to the moon and back over seven times. The water, too, aids in the production of honey, counting for 18% of the make-up of honey (Dade 43).
Though it is probably not surprising because they are called honey bees, the bees’ number one food intake is honey. The bees put out a lot of energy gathering all of their pollen and nectar; this requires them to eat a large amount in order to have enough energy to complete all of their honey production. Western honey bees often build their hives in forest tree branches. Studies have shown that the scouts are very picky when searching for a future nest site. The scouts tend to choose a nest location that is not too far from their current location, yet they prefer nests that are not too close either.
Scouts seem to prefer a nest site that has an entrance facing south because the south tends to receive more sunlight. They also desire for the nest site to be positioned roughly three or four meters above the ground (Seeley 73). Once a location is decided upon by the colony, the comb construction is started immediately. The workers in the colony start to mass produce beeswax for the construction of the comb. In order to be able to produce the wax, worker bees eat pollen for the first week that they are alive. The workers really focus on building the new nest since virtually nothing can happen in the colony without the comb.
Their hard work pays off; they can accomplish over 90% of the comb building in merely 45 days or even less. The bees have an intricate design for the honey comb. They form hexagonal shaped cells in the comb, maximizing the amount possible. These cells come in three different sizes. The smaller size is for the worker eggs, the slightly larger size is for the drone eggs, and the largest size is saved for the queen eggs. However, there are less than 20 cells for the queens. The left over cells that are not being used for the reproduction of the bees are put into use as storage cells.
This is where honey is stored after it is formed. There are three different types of members of a honey bee colony. There are workers, drones, and the queen. All three of these play a vital role in keeping the colony working in harmony. The first of these three is the worker bee. Worker bees are female, yet they never become fully sexually developed like the queen does. The worker bees, as one can imagine, provide the work force of the colony. They are the scavengers and collectors of pollen and nectar. Worker bees also take part in the reproduction process by laying unfertilized eggs that will hatch as drones.
The average life span of a worker bee varies depending on the season. If born during the spring or summer, their life span is just a month on average. However, if born during the winter then they can live for up to half of a year (Erickson, Carlson, and Garment 100). The second type in the honey bee colony is the drone. Drones are fatherless, male bees that have hatched from unfertilized eggs. As a result of having no father, the drones only have 16 chromosomes instead of the normal 32 that worker and queen bees have.
The lifetime of a drone is just two months during the summer, which is the only time that they are present n a colony. When the summer is over, the drones are kicked out of the colony. In the end, this causes them to die of starvation. The only real purpose that the drones serve in the colony is to mate with the queen bee. After mating with the queen bee, the drone is killed from the process. The third and final type of bee in the honey bee colony is the queen bee. The queen bee comes from fertilized eggs and is the only member of the honey bee colony to achieve full sexual maturity. Also, the queen bee has the longest lifespan by far in the colony. She can live up to five years; however, a lifespan of one to two years is more common.
The mortality rate of the queen is quite high with 60 percent of the queens dying within the first year (Erickson, Carlson, and Garment 11). The queen varies greatly from the other members of the colony. She has a smaller brain and eyes, yet a larger body. She is designed to produce thousands of eggs, and can even lay more than 2000 eggs per day. Though there are often multiple queens that are birthed at a time, there is only one reigning queen of the colony at one time. The first queen to hatch out of her cell seeks out and destroys the other queen larvae before they can develop fully.
Throughout her life, the queen is catered to. The workers groom and feed the queen. The queen is the most important member of the colony; she is responsible for producing all other members of the colony. The method of reproduction in the honey bee colony is very unique. The queen bee is responsible for essentially all of the reproduction in the colony. Just five days after reaching adulthood, the queen bee will go out on what are called mating flights. On a mating flight the queen will fly out from the nest, followed by several drones.
A drone will catch up to the queen bee and begin mating with her while in flight. After the queen bee has received the sperm from the drone, she will release the drone and he will fall to his death. The mating process kills the drones. The queen will mate with six to eighteen drones, or until she has enough sperm for her egg laying. Following the mating process, the queen’s fertile ovaries will enlarge; this allows for the queen to be more efficient with her egg laying.
The queen can produce two to three thousand eggs per day, which is over two to three times her body weight. If the queen wishes to produce a drone, hen all she has to do is withhold the semen from the egg. The queen will lay her eggs in the cell of the comb where they will stay, being taken care of by the worker bees, until they hatch. Along with the queen, worker bees can produce drones. The workers account for a very small portion of the eggs though. The most notorious feature of the honey bee is by far their ability to sting. Nearly everyone has experienced the sharp pain of a bee sting at some point in their life. The worker bees and queen bee are capable of stinging; the drones cannot sting since they do not have a stinger.
When a worker bee stings, their barbed stinger and poison sac are ripped out of the bee and the bee ends up dying. However, the queen bee does not have a barbed stinger, her stinger is smoother, and therefore she can sting multiple times without endangering her health. Honey bees, of course, have enemies and threats to their colony. These enemies vary in sizes and detriment to the colony. Some common enemies are spiders, insects, and animals. The largest threats to the honey bee colony include bears, badgers, wax moths, and humans. Bears are attracted to the colony by the sweet honey.
They are very powerful and can severely damage a colony with a few swipes; the bears try to knock the combs so that they can eat the honey. This is where the defense system of the honey bees kicks in. During the bear’s attempted break in, it is common for the bear to receive quite a few stings that leave them howling in pain. There is a specific type of badger that is known for hassling honey bee colonies; they are appropriately called the honey badgers. The honey badgers team up with the honey guide, a type of bird, in finding and raiding the honey bee comb.
Wax moths are detrimental to the honey bee colony for different reasons than the badgers and bears. The wax moths are an invasive pest that seeks out week bee colonies. When they find a week honey bee colony, the wax moths quickly take advantage of the situation. Wax moths can completely destroy the wax combs of the honey bee nest. The greatest threat to the honey bee population cannot be blamed upon anyone but the humans. Humans account for a large amount of damaged hives, poisoned bees, and even aid in the spreading of diseases in the bee population.
Human’s pesticides can be very etrimental to the honey bees; this is largely an unintentional result, yet it is a serious problem. The largest point of interest and most useful trait of the honey bees is their aid in the pollination of flowers and crops. Without the honey bee’s contribution in pollination, farmers and gardeners around the world would be struggling to grow any form of plant life. Pollination occurs when a worker bee travels from the hive in search of food. The worker bee gathers nectar from different flowers. While the worker bee is obtaining the nectar, she is also covering herself with pollen from the flower.
The bee will visit many different flowers throughout the day, and she will be bringing the pollen from different flowers to other flowers and therefore pollinating them. The honey bee is the most significant contributor of all pollinators, responsible for pollenating “more than 100 agricultural crops in the United States” (Honey Bees are Important Pollinators, para. 4). “In the United States alone, it is estimated that honeybees accomplish 1/4 of the pollination needed for all fruit produced for human consumption – an estimated $10 billion worth of work each year! (Great Plains Nature Center). The Western honey bee is of vital importance to the human population. It provides many necessities and has proven itself useful to humanity in many ways. Not only is the honey bee vitally important to the welfare of the human civilization, the insect is also a very interesting and fascinating model of a society based on hard work and efficiency. There is something beneficial for everyone to learn in observing the Western honey bee that aids them in becoming a better individual and contributor to society.
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